JERUSALEM, Sept. 4, 2008 — -- In stark contrast to U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's upbeat insistence during her visit to the Middle East last week that an Israeli-Palestinian agreement was still possible by year's end, Palestinian Prime Minister Salam Fayyad expressed serious reservations and fears about the stalled peace process Wednesday in Jerusalem.
Forced to cancel his appearance at the last moment due to what aides called an urgent matter of state, Fayyad dispatched Palestinian Foreign Minister Riad Malki to deliver his speech to the Israel Council on Foreign Relations.
"I fear that the two-state solution is losing currency among both our peoples and with the world community beyond," Fayyad wrote in the speech delivered by Malki.
He warned that extremists in both camps pose a threat to the peace talks, both those who "believe in occupation" and those who "believe Israel doesn't have the right to exist."
And in the first official admission that the resignation of Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, who announced he will step down on Sept. 17, has indeed set the negotiations back, Fayyad lamented that now "the peace process is held hostage to internal domestic affairs."
He admitted that both the impending departure Olmert and of U.S. President Bush have ushered in a new period of flux and instability.
Fayyad reserved his harshest words of criticism for the expansion of Israeli settlements.
"I am not blind to the reality on the ground," he wrote. "It has been nine months since Prime Minister Olmert declared a settlement freeze as part of Israel's commitments at Annapolis. Since that time, we have witnessed repeated attempts to grab land. Tenders for over 2,000 new settler housing units have been issued -- that is 2,000 new problems that will need solving as part of the negotiations."
"The opportunity to make peace lies in the Israelis' hands. They must choose peace or the settlements," added Fayyad.
A recent report by Israeli activist group Peace Now found that settlement building in the West Bank doubled in the first half of 2008 compared to the same period in 2007.
But Fayyad's calculation of 2,000 tenders includes more than 1,700 units approved in East Jerusalem, an area where Israeli officials, such as Defense Minister Ehud Barak, argue it is legitimate to build under the current framework of negotiations.
The most sobering sign of the evening came when Malki was asked how far along the parties were on reaching an agreement.
"Until this moment they did not start writing one single word on paper, and the reason for that is that they don't really agree on any issue or subissue yet," Malki replied.
Not good news given the deadline set by Bush when he launched the peace process in Annapolis last November. He wants the Israelis and Palestinians to conclude a detailed agreement by the end of his presidency.
But after Wednesday's remarks from such senior Palestinian negotiators it appears they haven't even started writing the first page.